By Michael Aushenker
A European Jewish language mixing German, Hebrew and other vocabulary, Yiddish usage may be fading with time, but local institutions are plying away at keeping its vibrant literary and artistic traditions alive.
Enter Hershl Hartman, education director of the Playa Vista-based Sholem Community and a member of Southern California Arbiter Ring/Workman’s Circle, who has organized a monthly Sunday morning film program illuminating the diversity of Yiddish cinema of the 1920s through ‘40s.
The series begins Sunday with a screening of 1923’s “East and West” at Westside Neighborhood School in Del Rey.
On the surface, “East and West” deals with a cultural clash between the traditional Eastern European shtetl (village) and modern American life in the Jazz Age.
“This is a comedy with a serious undertone [about assimilation],” Hartman said. The film depicts actress Molly Picon — “the reigning star of the Yiddish theater for 30 years,” said Hartman — as “a young woman who follows only her own direction. She teaches young Yeshiva boys to do the Charleston. Risible things like that.”
The five films in the series, each a restored print with English subtitles, were produced in Austria, Poland and the United States. They are among thousands of Yiddish films produced prior to World War II aimed at entertaining Yiddish-speaking audiences, many of them adapted from the rich wellspring of Yiddish literature and featuring talent who would later star in and influence Hollywood movies and television.
Later screenings include the 1939 movie “Tevye” — based on Sholem Aleichem’s story “Tevye and his Daughters,” which would later inform the 1964 musical and 1971 film “Fiddler on the Roof.” In this version, actor and director “Maurice Schwartz first showed him as a mensch. It’s not a musical but a drama,” Hartman said.
Another is the “Light Ahead,” based on a novel by the grandfather of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Mendele Mocher Sforim. The 1939 film starred David Opatoshu, who later appeared on many American TV programs (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Star Trek,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Falcon Crest”), and was written by Chaver Pahver, a Yiddish screenwriter who lived in Los Angeles.
“The Matchmaker” (1940) is representative of Yiddish comedies that influenced Jewish-American comedians such as The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges and Mel Brooks.
Closing out the proceedings in February is 1937’s “The Dybbuk,” a Polish film version of a supernatural love story in a 1914 play by S. Ansky. The film could be superficially described as a Yiddish “Romeo and Juliet,” but “the Dybbuk, invades the body of a young woman, which leads to an exorcism … [and] woven into the supernatural story is a stark contrast of the rich and poor,” Hartman said.
“If there’s an overarching theme [of this film series], it’s that Yiddish culture is as broad as any other group, from stark drama to vaudeville humor. It can’t be easily pigeonholed,” Hartman said.
“And besides that,” he added, “it’ll be a lot of fun.”
“East and West” screens at 10:15 a.m. Sunday at Westside Neighborhood School, 5401 Beethoven St., Del Rey. The series continues through February, with each screening $15 or $50 for a series pass. Visit sholem.org for more information. §